I've been trying to figure out whether the Fed's declaration that it would maintain exceptionally low rates through late 2014 represents a conditional or unconditional statement. That is, if the economy improves faster than expected, will the Fed raise rates prior to that time? Or will it honor this as a firm commitment that is independent of the actual evolution of the economy?
The statement clearly leaves wiggle room -- if the Fed wants out of the commitment the language is there. But I have the impression that the public views it as a firm, unconditional commitment and if the Fed backs away it will be seem as breaking a promise (i.e. lose credibility).
Apparently, I'm not the only one who is unsure about this. This is from Jeffrey R. Campbell, Charles L. Evans, Jonas D.M. Fisher, and Alejandro Justiniano (Charles Evans is the president of the Chicago Fed). They look at the effectiveness and viability of the two types of forward guidance, and conclude that a firm commitment with an escape clause specified as a specific rule (e.g. won't raise rates until until unemployment falls below 7% or inflation expectation rise above 3%) can work well:
Macroeconomic Effects of FOMC Forward Guidance, by Jeffrey R. Campbell, Charles L. Evans, Jonas D.M. Fisher, and Alejandro Justiniano, March 14, 2012, Conference Draft: 1 Introduction Since the onset of the financial crisis, Great Recession and modest recovery, the Federal Reserve has employed new language and tools to communicate the likely nature of future monetary policy accommodation. The most prominent developments have manifested themselves in the formal statement that follows each meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). In December 2008 it said "the Committee anticipates that weak economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for some time." In March 2009, when the first round of large scale purchases of Treasury securities was announced, "extended period" replaced "some time." In the face of a modest recovery, the August 2011 FOMC statement gave specificity to "extended period" by anticipating exceptionally low rates "at least as long as mid-2013." The January 2012 FOMC statement lengthened the anticipated period of exceptionally low rates even further to "late 2014." These communications are referred to as forward guidance.
The nature of this most recent forward guidance is the subject of substantial debate. Is "late 2014" an unconditional promise to keep the funds rate at the zero lower bound (ZLB) beyond the time policy would normally involve raising the federal funds rate? ... Alternatively, is "late 2014" simply conditional guidance based upon the sluggish economic activity and low inflation expected through this period? ...
Our paper sheds light on these issues and the potential role of forward guidance in the current policy environment. Motivated by the competing interpretations of "late 2014," we distinguish between two kinds of forward guidance. Odyssean forward guidance changes private expectations by publicly committing the FOMC to future deviations from its underlying policy rule. Circumstances will tempt the FOMC to renege on these promises precisely because the policy rule describes its preferred behavior. Hence this kind of forward guidance resembles Odysseus commanding his sailors to tie him to the ship's mast so that he can enjoy the Sirens' music.
All other forward guidance is Delphic in the sense that it merely forecasts the future. Delphic forward guidance encompasses statements that describe only the economic outlook and typical monetary policy stance. Such forward guidance about the economic outlook influences expectations of future policy rates only by changing market participants views about likely outcomes of variables that enter the FOMC's policy rule. ...
The monetary policies elucidated by Krugman (1999), Eggertsson and Woodford (2003) and Werning (2012) rely on Odyssean forward guidance, and these have inspired several policy proposals for providing more accommodation at the ZLB. The more aggressive policy alternatives proposed include Evans's (2012) state-contingent price-level targeting, nominal income-targeting as advocated by Romer (2011), and conditional economic thresholds for exiting the ZLB proposed by Evans (2011). These proposals' benefits depend on the effectiveness of FOMC communications in influencing expectations. Fortunately, there exists historical precedent with which we can assess whether FOMC forward guidance has actually had an impact. The FOMC has been using forward guidance implicitly through speeches or explicitly through formal FOMC statements since at least the mid-1990s. Language of one form or another describing the expected future stance of policy has been a fixture of FOMC statement language since May 1999. The first part of this paper uses data from this period as well as from the crisis period to answer two key questions. Do markets listen? When they do listen, do they hear the oracle of Delphi forecasting the future or Odysseus binding himself to the mast?
Our examination of whether markets are listening to forward guidance builds on prior work... We find results that are similar to, if not even stronger than, those of Gurkaynak et al. (2005). That is, we confirm that during and after the crisis, FOMC statements have had significant affects on long term Treasuries and also corporate bonds and that these effects appear to be driven by forward guidance.
Studying federal funds futures rates during the day FOMC statements are released identifies forward guidance, but does not disentangle its Odyssean and Delphic components. ... To answer our second key question, we develop a framework for measuring forward guidance based on a traditional interest rate rule that identifies only Odyssean forward guidance. ... We highlight here two results. First, the FOMC telegraphs most of its deviations from the interest rate rule at least one quarter in advance. Second, the Odyssean forward guidance successfully signaled that monetary accommodation would be provided much more quickly than usual and taken back more quickly during the 2001 recession and its aftermath. Overall, our empirical work provides evidence that the public has at least some experience with Odyssean forward guidance, so the monetary policies that rely upon it should not appear entirely novel.
The second part of the present paper investigates the consequences the Odyssean forward put in place with the "late 2014" statement language. On the one hand this language resembles the policy recommendations of Eggertsson and Woodford (2003) and could be the right policy for an economy struggling to emerge from a liquidity trap. On the other hand there are legitimate concerns that this forward guidance places the FOMC's mandated price stability goal at risk. We consider the plausibility of these clashing views by forecasting the path of the economy with the present forward guidance and subjecting that forecast to two upside risks: higher inflation expectations and faster deleveraging. ...
Evans (2011) has proposed conditioning the FOMC's forward guidance on outcomes of unemployment and inflation expectations. His proposal involves the FOMC announcing specific conditions under which it will begin lifting its policy rate above zero: either unemployment falling below 7 percent or expected inflation over the medium term rising above 3 percent. We refer to this as the 7/3 threshold rule. It is designed to maintain low rates even as the economy begins expanding on its own (as prescribed by Eggertsson and Woodford (2003)), while providing safeguards against unexpected developments that may put the FOMCs price stability mandate in jeopardy. Our policy analysis suggests that such conditioning, if credible, could be helpful in limiting the inflationary consequences of a surge in aggregate demand arising from an early end to the post-crisis deleveraging.